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26 Jan. 2015 | Comments (0)

Each year, Lucy Bernholz, a philanthropy blogger and visiting scholar at the Stanford University Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, publishes an influential industry forecast that articulates the big ideas that will matter for the next 12 months. This year’s publication, Blueprint: 2015, which was released late last year, continues Lucy’s recent focus on the social economy and digital civil society.

Among other things, Blueprint: 2015 makes some bold predictions about the way the nonprofit and corporate philanthropy sectors will collect and analyze data in coming years. Lucy kindly answered my questions to find out more about these and other forecasts.

What is Blueprint, and what’s unique about this year’s publication?

A: The Blueprint is an annual review of big trends, predictions, and contextual shifts specific to philanthropists, impact investors, nonprofits and other organizations involved in trying to make the world a better place. The booklet is intended for executives and board members to inform their planning efforts, orient new colleagues, and challenge conventional wisdom.

The 2015 edition is the sixth annual Blueprint and reflects on how much of what was seen as external to philanthropy in 2010 is now central. In particular, we should all now be assuming that digital data and infrastructure will be part of change efforts and that financial mechanisms from impact investing and political giving will shape the ecosystems of change.

You predict that donations of corporate data will be front page news in 2015. Can you give us an understanding of why you think data donations will be the next step in corporate philanthropy and some of the risks attached to the practice?

A: Digital data are the most abundant asset most corporations have. Much of it can be used for social good—from satellite images being used by humanitarian groups to transit and mobility data that can inform city planning efforts. Social media data, consumer preferences information, mobile phone data are already being shared with researchers and nongovernmental organizations to improve their work. As interesting, many corporations are also contributing expertise and analytic tools through a growing network of data science for social good organizations.

The risks are many—they have to do with obtaining consent from customers to have their information aggregated, anonymized, and shared to liability questions about the mis-interpretation of data. It’s also unclear who owns what when datasets are shared. Key questions to be worked out include issues of privacy, ownership, and consent.

Theres a particularly interesting quote from the report: Today, in foundations and nonprofits that have the capacity to manage data well, the skills to use data well are typically scattered across their grants management, IT, communications, evaluation, program, and/or legal departments. Imagine what a foundation would look like if the data analysis and sensemaking skills blurred across those lines and integrated intro strategy and grantmaking the way financial skills have started to. What needs to happen for this vision to become a reality?

A: First, organizations need to understand what digital data they have and be strategic in how they want to use it toward their missions. Some nonprofits might choose, for example, to openly license everything, while others will have strategic reasons for keeping a closer hold on certain datasets or analyses. Nonprofits need to honestly and strategically inventory their data assets and develop tiered plans for collecting, securing, sharing, and destroying information in ways that further their missions, not just by the default settings of either their software platforms or what vendors tell them.

You revisit your 2014 prediction that “civic tech” (efforts to use the internet or mobile technology to improve public services and government-citizen interactions) will be an area to watch for the future. What role will corporations play in civic tech, and how can civic innovation contribute to corporate philanthropy?

A: Some companies are already partnering with cities to share the data they collect on mobility patterns or tourist preferences. This can help improve public planning options—though there are still lots of questions about who owns what and what motivations are at work. Companies are also hosting events for data scientists, community members, activists, and city officials to make sense of public data sets using analytics platforms and software tools. As cities install more and more remote sensors in the built infrastructure they will need lots of help to protect that information, use it in ways that citizens understand, and be fair, equitable and transparent about how the data are being used to drive policy.

Which political and institutional barriers could hinder open nonprofit data in the United States?

A: Could hinder or are hindering? Most nonprofits struggle to make ends meet so there are few resources to hire top data talent or tools. They are committed to effectiveness and efficiency but lack working capital to change processes or use new systems. Nonprofits already report a lot of data for public review, but the burden of making those data open falls to the public agencies that collect that information. As cities and states open datasets, the information on their nonprofit communities is becoming available. There’s a lot more to be done at all levels—within organizations, within industries such as housing or education, and at the aggregate state or federal level.

You predict that in 2015 coordinated disaster philanthropy will gain traction as an idea, but won’t become a routine behavior. Can you explain your reasoning behind this prediction, and what do you believe will prevent it from becoming routine?

A: There are new efforts promoting coordinated disaster response but our behavior— as both individual donors and local organizations— isn’t quite ready for them. Disaster philanthropy has to be among the most impulsive types of giving there is. And there seem to be two different kinds of disasters— those that happen to you and those that happen to other people. Coordinated efforts to fund disasters that happen to other people are trying to make it easier for big givers— institutions and individuals—to have a trusted partner ready to go, wherever disaster strikes. This may appeal to some, but many people will be averse to the added layer of intermediation and the sense that the best response work depends on local knowledge.

For the disasters that happen to you, every community should be preparing plans for disaster giving and distribution— and many have, especially in places where weather or natural events have happened before. The rest of us? Well we probably need to go through the shock, disruption, and last minute “shoulda, coulda, wouldas” before we prepare for next time.

  • About the Author:Lucy Bernholz

    Lucy Bernholz

    Lucy Bernholz is a philanthropy wonk. She’s trying to understand how we create, fund, and distribute shared social goods in the digital age – what she calls the future of good. Lucy writes…

    Full Bio | More from Lucy Bernholz

  • About the Author:Alex Parkinson

    Alex Parkinson

    Alex Parkinson is Principal of Parky Communications, a communications agency specializing in sustainability and CSR reporting and communications. He serves as the Co-Leader of The Conference Board Cor…

    Full Bio | More from Alex Parkinson


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